OPINION: To have walked with the titan of Philippine politics

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Oct 21 2019 03:17 PM

"You might be surprised to meet really good and well meaning leaders at the local level, Prof. In fact you will be surprised to meet a lot better leaders at the local level." These were the words I will never forget when I met with the late Titan of Philippine Politics Tatay Nene Pimentel. This was when I started working more on local governments in 2008.

At that time he was no longer the chair of the committee on local governments at the Senate but he was still the one who was sought by leagues of local governments and many other advocates for decentralization and local governance. We worked closely then through his partner in advocacy for local governments, the late Director Terry Dumugho. We would regularly meet in the office and share stories especially at lunchtime where his favorite dinengdeng would be available from a nearby karinderya.

Constantly we met and thought of capacity building programs we could formulate and offer for local governments, training personnel and helping them plan and formulate appropriate and effective local programs and policies. Tatay would always remind me when Dir. Terry and I have already come up with a draft program that "local officials don't need much 'teaching.' They need more of guidance, give them a menu of what they can do and let them figure out themselves what’s best for them." I figured there must have been a reason why he was emphasizing these.

There was not much choice before for local governments and leaders; at least that’s how I understood what he wrote in his book on the local government code. He was a Mayor of Cagayan De Oro when they decided to procure dump trucks needed by the city. Because there was a need to ask permission from the national government then, by the time they could finally put the procurement to motion, the city could no longer afford the same number of needed dump trucks. The delay was just too much that the City could not respond in time.

At first I thought it is just right for the national government to have the power to oversee the work of local governments but when I understood it better, I thought it was absurd. In the first place, especially as far as the story of the dump trucks, this power to oversee has been interpreted more as power to control. This was the basis for then Sen. Nene to define what the “power of supervision” meant in the 1991 Local Government Code. Still, up to now, the national government, many national political leaders and even national government agencies, see local governments as just subalterns.

Many still understand the word supervision as control. Imagine that up to now, before a local government can buy a vehicle, it still has to be approved by the Office of the DILG Secretary. Local governments are supposedly already given fiscal autonomy. That means the money that they have is theirs and not from the national government. It is quite unusual to be asking someone permission to use your own money. The explanation to this by some even shows temerity as apparently, the need to control spending stems from corruption at the local level. I would then always ask, which part of government, local or (in fact more so in) national is free from corruption?

The point in all this is not just the procurement of a vehicle, which would be remiss. It is a question of allowing local governments to really function as intended and expected to be under decentralization. As it is right now, there are just too many limitations politically and especially resources-wise. There are just so many “unfunded mandates” preventing local governments to perform a lot better than they do now. This is over and above pressures that accrue from the reality of national-local politics given the prevailing political system.

There is just so much more that could be done to really bring out the best in local governance and result to real development in the countryside. And the late Titan of Philippine Politics would never stop at thinking of ways moving forward. Senator or not we’d think of what can still be done, especially in constantly pushing for a comprehensive review as mandated, that could pave the way for revision of the local government code. Sadly however, no matter what we do, not even just the “comprehensive review” could move forward. There had been so many who took over as chair of the committee on local government, so far not one has moved to do a comprehensive review.

Then again he was already saying that decentralization has already reached its limits given the kind of system we have in place. Saying this would even bring us to a discussion why we have the kind of Senate or Congress now compared to how it was before. It was in one forum when we were together and I was telling him, if only we have the kind of Senate before, perhaps it would have been different. He just smiled and corrected me: "The Senate is still the Senate as it was. The composition may be different but it is as much as how it was before."

Of course I knew he wasn’t saying it literally especially that at times it would show his exasperation dealing with a fellow Senator saying: "He just wouldn’t get it!" Then again he’d explain that because of the system, we end up electing the kind of leaders we have today. “I couldn’t agree more," I said and would go on and say the voters have to be educated more. He’d agree except that he’d also say it’s not because the voters don't think. In fact it is because the voters think that we have the kind of leaders we have today.

It sounded nonsensical, and I couldn’t help but show that in my facial reaction. He explained: "We have the kind of leaders we have today because the voters have constantly looked for someone different, hoping to get something different that is better governance. Unfortunately, the choices aren’t that much precisely because the system could only provide much of the same choices." Only then did I realize what he meant by the need to change the system.

That was years back, it would only be when the Consultative Committee to Review the 1987 Constitution (ConCom) that I would again have the opportunity to every so often sit, listen and converse with our Tatay Nene. Seldom do you see an old man adept at today’s technology, how much more an octogenarian who writes and reads not in a laptop but in his tab. He doesn’t have much need of it anyway as each time he mounted the podium I wouldn’t see any notes on hand for him to read. You can perhaps picture how active he still was as a leading public servant. This was the culmination of his career serving the country, pushing for Federalism.

I couldn't count how many forums, radio programs we participated together with other ConCom members. A few months before ConCom was convened, we spoke at the Senate anniversary celebration. Sitting together he would say: "I wonder why some would still insist on 'pursuing decentralization' when I already did and we have seen its limitations now. Precisely why I am now pushing for Federalism." We would remember just that when we were in the ConCom. We would always smile at each other in agreement as if saying, “here we go again” when we face experts and legal luminaries insisting that we pursue "further" decentralization and not federalism.

The man is just untiring as he was unwavering and intense and at the same time meticulous. ConCom members would continue meeting even after submitting the “Bayanihan” draft constitution to the President. We discussed prevailing issues and figured out a way to move forward and continue the advocacy. Tatay would always as much possible attend and would just say, “unless I am physically unable or that I would be in the hospital”. The last time he managed to be with us was during the birthday celebration of the only lady ConCom member, Atty. Susan Ordinario.

On September 30, some ConCom members met and again discussed options moving forward and I updated our dear Tatay of what was discussed the following day. He apologized, as he always does, for not being able to make it and went on to request for another day to meet with the members. On 4 October, I was messaging Tatay that that next meeting he asked is scheduled on 14 October, Monday. His reply was "Ed, malooy (may awa) ang Dios, physical conditions allowing I want to attend."

We were supposed to meet and discuss details of some work planned to continue engaging various leaders of various sectors. He was quite clear that the only way we can move forward is to have the people understand the need to change the system, that whatever initiative has to be clamored for by the people. Hence some activities set next week and the following. The next day, 15 October, we got news that he was taken to the ICU.

Our Chair, Chief Justice Reynato Puno, was asking which hospital Tatay was taken, as he wanted to visit right away. Our Viber group was then buzzing with messages asking how he was, who was going to visit and when. It has become some preference for members to go together in events and or activities, often meeting in one place before proceeding to the event itself. This visit however will happen only when our dear Tatay could no longer converse with us as before. Everyone was saying: “I thought we’d have him on the 26th”.

And so Tay, we can only salute you and try tirelessly as you did to stay the course even if the odds are so much against us. We can only try our best to approximate the standard you have set and maintain our sights on the objective. We salute you and carry your baton forward.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.